Unfinished Business - On the trail of Explorer David Carnegie

Monday, Jul 18, 2011 at 08:00


We had camped near a small creek system near the top end of the Tanami Track, about fifteen kilometres south of the Great Northern Highway. Yesterday we restocked with fuel and a few supplies at Halls Creek as we expected to be away from civilisation for over a week. However, now we made our way south on the Tanami Track, a convoy of four vehicles. There was supposed to be a turnoff to the west about 20 kilometres south from the turnoff to Wolfe Creek Meteorite Crater.
The pastoralists from Ruby Plains Station were out aerial mustering along the track with a helicopter and motorbikes. I caught glimpses of the crater rim as I drove past; it looked nothing more than a small range from my viewpoint. We arrived at the turnoff to the west in time for some morning tea. It was a good track by the looks. This track which starts in station country eventually heads deep into the northern section of the Great Sandy Desert.
Our destination was Bannerman Soak some 50 kilometres away. Explorer David Carnegie had his 75th camp on his 1896 expedition near the soak, where he subsequently explored the ranges immediately north finding and naming Mount Bannerman, Shiddi Pool and Redleap Pool. The track never deteriorated to an extent to where we would be worried. The track followed a dune corridor with the usual spinifex interwoven across the surface.
A huge creek with its head in the range to the north contained the soak. We left the track and made for the creek cross country from the southwest. We all had a look for the soak following the creek up and down on foot however we did not identify it; we found no water or moisture at all.
We had a big day ahead of us, as I hoped to make it to Shiddi Pool around the northern side of the range. Firstly though we would make for Mount Bannerman. We were on the western side of the creek and would have to go downstream for a while before we could hope to cross to the other side. There were many large gums trees along the creek line as well as high grass.
We made it to the mount and had lunch. From the summit the view from all angles was superb. To the south was the Great Sandy Desert extending for a far as the horizon would allow. West again the desert, this range, and isolated peaks south west including Mount Erskine. To the north the range which we hope to go around this afternoon, and more desert to the east with a natural amphitheatre forming between Mount Bannerman and the adjacent peak.

Photo: Phil B
Carnegie made both very generous and frustrating descriptions of some of the features he described from the top of Mount Bannerman. Myself and Phil, whilst at the top, sketched some of the area as well as discussed which feature of Carnegies was which.
I led the team out and around the eastern section of the range. There is an obsolete communications tower on top of a section of the range and I assumed the old tracks I could pick up now and then would have been part of the towers access tracks. These tracks are extremely overgrown and were really too thick to conveniently follow.
The range consisted of a number of breakaway groups of outcrops and they looked stunning as we passed them by. It was really slow going – I kept as reasonably practical as I could to the range. One dune was too large to easily get over so I had to follow it around to the west. Here a nice view presented itself made up of a huge gap between sections of the range.
There were some dry creeks cutting our path and one of these stopped two of the vehicles in their tracks. After some digging and some hauling the vehicles made it to the other side. The ground was fairly rocky and lot of weaving around the pattern of the creeks was required. As our course veered west after we passed the northern extent of the range, the number of rocks and boulders increased significantly, as did the thickness and impenetrability of the vegetation.

My sump hit and scraped boulders in this section twice. It required constant attention to pick your line of travel. There was a sandridge running east west in sight and the terrain would have be easier on the other side however I decided to maintain the vector we were on as it was closer to Shiddi Pool by direct line, and our chances of seeing interesting things would be higher.
Another three kilometres later and we made it in to a pleasant natural clearing, not far from the pool at about half an hour before sunset. It was a long day however we made it. We set up camp and had a brief look at the pool. I imagine tomorrow will be just as big a day, as the pool and the surrounding creek system were indeed worthy of exploration.
Carnegie himself arrived at the pool on 1st November 1896 and stayed in the area for 14 days, not for want of relaxation in a desert oasis, but of necessity. Three of his camels saw their fate in this vicinity, Shiddi, from whom the pool was named, Redleap and Prempeh. They all died from eating poison bush. Further, two of his men, Charles Stansmore and Joe Breaden were overcome by sickness, Breaden with Dysentery.
In the area, Godfrey Massie found another pool a mile downstream where he stayed overnight once hunting. Another larger pool was found further downstream which was named Redleap Pool, after Carnegie's deceased camel.
In the morning after breakfast we all went down to the pool to have a good look.The pool was at a point in the gorge where it turned at right angles. It was a nice sight to see this much water here; we were still well within the boundaries of the Great Sandy Desert. There were many petroglyphs engraved upon the rockfaces in many different forms.

Then we began to hike downstream to try and reach Redleap Pool about three kilometres away. We walked upon the sandy base of the creek with the large white gums encroaching it. There were a number of pools on the way and we thought we worked out which one would have been the once Massie hunted at as it was larger than the others.
It was a hard walk and there were many twists and turns. At one stage we had to get out of the creek and walk along the bank as the creek became a thin gorge with huge drop-offs to the creek below. Eventually we reach Redleap and some of us cooled our feet in the water. Here we looked for a tree marked by Frank Hann in 1896 which Carnegie mentioned he saw when he was there. We did not find it.

After a short rest we started to head back to camp, hoping to cut some distance off the journey by travelling above the creek. This worked, as we could mostly walk in straight line, and the terrain easy to traverse. I found an old tin can in the bush along the way. We were all tired and rested for a while before Dave whipped up a barbeque of bacon and eggs.
Whilst planning this trip I noticed on GoogleEarth, a dark spot upstream in the creek just over a kilometre east of Shiddi Pool. This is on a tributary of a tributary of the creek we were on now. I hypothesised that this was another pool. Leaving Shiddi Pool, myself and Peter – who was the only one of a tired pack who wanted to come with me – decided to find out the truth. We walked across the rocky ground north of camp to pass the creek, and then east. The dog stayed at camp. It was lame. We think it walked across the campfire.
It wasn’t too long before we came to the tributary and clambered down into the creek bed. The walls of the gorge here were about five metres high. There were some small pools in the creek as we made our way up. I had the GPS clicking over, letting me know how far I was from our target. A large rockhole was the reward for our labours and I was quite excited and happy as a result. There were more of the ancient petroglyphs along the walls of the pool.The pool was about 25 metres long by 7 metres wide and would probably be as deep as 2 or 3 metres at its deepest.

We stayed for quite a while before setting off for camp. We followed the creek back all the way to Shiddi Pool and wondered how old the engravings on many of the walls were. We took our time. When it rains is must surely be quite a sight and I wouldn’t want to be in the way.
Our camp was a compact and efficient unit. John and Suz slept in the rooftop tent, Phil in a pole tent, and the rest of us in swags. With the generator as backup every now and then we were able to maintain the power to the fridges and the lighting. One campfire, six people, a dog, a million stars – and no one else in sight!!
We all agreed to walk along the creek to the new pool in the morning and left camp about 8:30am. Now we all had a chance to see the engravings and to marvel at some of the pools along the way. There was something of interest quite frequently, with someone shouting, “hey have a look at this” a common occurrence.
Everyone agreed that the new pool was worth the walk – the dog now walking, barked at the hornets hovering above the pool surface. Myself, Dave and Peter decided to continue upstream and then cut south to a tributary; the others made their way back to camp – planning to go back a similar route to that which Peter and I came here yesterday.
Walking for what seemed like ages to the north east, and it was clear there were no more pools to be found. The tributary had spread out a bit so we started to head south. The terrain was firstly sandy with small vegetation. Not long later it became rocky, with rises not quite worthy of the name hill, hindering our progress. The geology is certainly ancient here. On and on we walked until we came to a small gorge which turned out to be the one which leads to Shiddi Pool. Some areas of the creek bed were abundant in vegetation, though there are signs of the kangaroo making its path.

We made it to camp again, funnily enough right around lunchtime. We all took it easy. Later Peter and I went down again to the pool and again marvelled at all the petroglyphs. It was then that as I was trying to hop across a few rocks, the last rock turned over and caused me to fall into the cool water. Unfortunately my camera received a good wash though not a long one, and I retreated to camp to dry it out as it was not working.
This was our third night here and would be our last. We thoroughly enjoyed our time here at this remote oasis. We all agreed that it would be easy to spend more time here exploring, if time allowed it!!! In the morning we would head north to continue to follow Carnegie and we all wondered what was in store for us.
Carnegie had left in a north western direction. He crossed his final sandridge and headed to a small hill about five miles away which he called Mount Webb. He camped about halfway between Mount Webb and a range further north which he called Border Range. Later on he renamed this range Cummins Range, after the warden at Halls Creek.
Before he reached the range he saw an old horse pad running north south. This could be Frank Hann’s track from earlier in the year; he may have been on his way to Redleap Pool where he blazed the tree. Some old maps show Hann’s route going all the way to Bishops Dell south of Lake Gregory, however no diary has even been located so exact details are not known.
I had planned to come into this area three times as part of extended desert trips over the last nine years and every time I had ran out of time so had never been. Being here now has been a long held ambition, and had been unfinished business of mine.
We started off in the direction of Mount Webb. For reasons unknown this has never been officially known as Mount Webb. It was also called at one stage simply “Moyle”, however now has no name presently and is marked on my map as a single survey mark NMF214.

Photo: Phil B
Almost immediately the scrub was horrendously thick with hardly any gaps at all to bypass the vehicle high vegetation. We pushed on though and eventually came to the same sandridge that Carnegie crossed, his last one. It took me three attempts to get over the ridge as the vegetation was so thick there was no chance of a run up.
We reached the mount travelling just over the seven kilometres from camp in about 45 minutes and were afforded great views of the Shiddi Pool, Mount Bannerman area were we had just left. There was a very well built cairn on top where the survey marked was located.
Although the Cummins Range was just slightly west of north we headed on a north west direction as there was a fenceline on the map ten kilometres away and it may allow easier access to the north. The terrain was still bad, mostly due to the vegetation however not as bad as the section from Shiddi Pool to Mount Webb. Shortly though I suffered multiple punctures in the space of a kilometre which slowed us all down somewhat.

Photo: Phil B
There is an inland creek marked on the map and is also seen from aerial pictures. We slowed down to prepare for any surprises however no visible creek was passed. We all assumed that the creek must have been so wide that the bed just merged into the surrounding area; either this or it was so old that is no longer an active creek.
After, I had stopped to let the others catch up I went around the other side of the vehicle. Pete came over for a chat on the drivers side. I could smell diesel. I told Pete and had a look at the Jerry Cans on the back. They looked Ok. I looked underneath and there was diesel leaking from somewhere at a rate of about a litre every 30 seconds. Pete was underneath in a flash, I radioed “fuel leak” and joined him underneath.
It was a hose pulled off from an inlet tube so Pete put his finger on it to stop the flow of fuel. Within 30 seconds the Great Sandy Desert Emergency Response Unit had surrounded the vehicle ready to act given the word. This was not necessary as we had repairs enacted within a few minutes. I did not appear to have lost much fuel however it was a reminder that almost anything could happen, and it is best to be prepared for any circumstance.
We moved on, and soon reached the fence that was marked on the map. There was a faint track on the other side of the fence so we followed it northwards. The Cummins Range was now visible some six kilometres distant. Phil and Dave struck a decent sized stake in their front left tyre. We stopped to change the tyre and shortly after stopped for lunch. There was no benefit to continue following the fence as there was no track, and trees would grow adjacent to it forcing us around them.
We made a beeline to the part of the range where Carnegie would have crossed and chose a nice spot near an unflowing creek which had its head in the range. There was a track running parallel to the range though it didn’t look at all well used. It was still early so Phil and Dave went for a drive to the west and John and Suz east for a reconnaissance.
Dave and Phil reported a gate and a track that goes around the western side of the range. Myself and Peter went for a hike, starting by following the line of the creek. There were a couple of rockholes further along with water. We did not get to the highest point of the range however we reached the top of a shoulder and could see the view of the northern plains. We admired the spinifex covered rocky slopes and the trees and stayed until sunset, when we then made steady progress back down to arrive at camp right on dark.
Our goal in the morning was to get around the other side of the range, and so we departed our pleasant camp and proceeded west to see where the track that Dave and Phil reported yesterday, would lead us. The fence was very well made, and probably wasn’t too many years old. It followed the range around to the north and continued following the range for a few kilometres to the east. The track alongside the fence wasn’t used frequently however was easily enough traversed.
After Carnegie crossed the range he headed north again, and eventually crossed a ravine. He passed another two large creeks before coming onto Christmas Creek. He came onto a junction of the creek where a tributary from the north intersects. Here he found another blaze by Frank Hann on a tree. It was this junction that we would hope to reach tonight if all goes well.
The fence turned north at right angles, which was exactly the direction we wish to head so an added bonus. The track was still good condition, the terrain was flat with low vegetation. Soon though, we came to a small hill just east of the fence so we decided to have morning tea there. I suggested that we called it Bianchi Hill after Phil, however was outvoted when the consensus wanted Bianchi Knob.
Some of us climbed the hill to see the view. Cummins Range to the south was clearly seen, and to the north, the terrain was seen to gradually become more rugged, as the headwaters of Christmas Creek were reached. We continued on following the fence for another ten kilometres where it turned 90 degrees west. The main course of the track followed the fence however there was a faint track leading on northwards.
We followed northern track for a short while before turning off to the east, as there was a waterhole marked on the map and we thought it would worth a visit. For a few hundred metres the terrain was easy then the vegetation thickened to the extent that I was very worried that a few punctures would result. To make it even more difficult the water hole was situated in a creek and the elevation was dropping fairly rapidly the closer we got. Eventually we couldn’t progress any further as we reached the edge of the ancient rocky border that perhaps once marked the extremities of the creek.
I suspect that this was the ravine that Carnegie had talked about. As the waterhole was only of minor interest and not on our main feature list we decided to turn back to the track and resume our original course hopefully to find a way to cross the creek further downstream.
The track split into two separate tracks, one going north west and the other continuing north. We split up with myself and Pete reconnoitring the northern track. With the creek only a kilometre away, the ancient creek line found before was found to continue around and despite following several remnants of tracks could not find a crossing point.

Photo: Phil B
John and Suz called on the radio that the other track continued to a low point near the creek, so we retraced our tracks and joined them a few kilometres later where they and the others were waiting for us.
We had lunch here and did a fair bit of walking around to try to find a place to cross the creek. There was a track on the other side and by walking back and forth between the two sides we eventually decided on the best route. There was a waterhole in the bed of the creek here. After lunch we all crossed without drama. The creek junction that Carnegie found was only about five kilometres from here, and we would try and reach it by following the high ridges of the creek system roughly parallel to Christmas Creek, and varying between one and two kilometres to the south.
The track was not well defined initially and we lost it and found it again a couple of times though later it became easier to see. The landscape seen from the track heading to the junction was very scenic, with great views of the land following the undulations caused by the many brooks and channels. Passing a fork in the road we eventually came to the junction of the creeks. There were remains of stock holding yards and it would seem that this location would have been the scene of much activity in the distant past.

We selected a place to camp and then proceeded to further explorer the area. There were two junctions, the one on which we had camped and another one half a kilometre to the east, where I suspected the blazed tree to be. We also looked for any traces of a track on the far side of the creek, which would have been about 60 metres wide near camp, and quite dry. We found no track which was disappointing as we wanted to continue north from here to Fish Pool, as Carnegie did.
We explored the area further in the morning however did not find the blazed tree, though there were one or two very old trees at the junction that may have contained a blaze in the past. We also found a couple of waterholes in the bed of the northern tributary.
Discussion was had about our next move. Our destination was Fish Pool, which was only just over 20 kilometres away. However, we could not find a track north even though this place seemed to be a hub of activity in times past. The way north was probably achievable given enough time, however was fraught with risks as there were many creeks and tributaries to cross and a high likelihood of turning back if confronted with impassable country. We were more or less at the southern end of a massive creek drainage system and we had already had a fair share of drama getting to this point.
The other alternative was to head back out into the desert again and completely bypass the entire creek system which extended about fifteen kilometres to the south and 20 to the east. This was the alternative we chose even though the distance was considerably more to the same destination. So we backtracked until we reached the fork in the track that we passed yesterday, and followed it to the south, and it ran closely parallel on the other side of the creek that we had tried to cross previously. We soon had the waterhole we had tried to reach yesterday to our west however we did not try to reach it again.
Two kilometres later the track deviated to the west until it stopped right at the edge of the creek, which Carnegie had described as a ravine. We could see why now as it had steep rocky sides extending downwards about 30 metres. We wondered why the track would stop here abruptly, and could only think that as there was a good possibility of waterholes in the creek, this may have been the last stock watering point for Old Lamboo Station.
So now we had no option but to proceed cross country again, heading south east parallel to the ravine for about five kilometres until its end and then swinging around slowly to make our way to a pool marked on the map Burrtina Pool. The terrain was still quite rugged, the border of the drainage system not quite reached. In this section I got a pretty bad puncture, though we managed to plug it with several plugs. Whilst stopped John had a look at my steering tie rods which had become loose enough for play in the steering to be noticeable. He tightened them up as best he could. We took the opportunity to have some morning tea.
Just prior to reaching Burrtina Pool we reached another track heading north south. We followed it south as it would take us closer to the pool, where we had lunch. It is not known who named the pool however its location was confirmed in 1966 by an Army Field Survey Party.The pool would not hold a great deal of water when full and when we found it only held about five litres.
After lunch we then head north on the newly found track to hope that it would take us around the creek system to the far north. We were quite happy to realise that it was heading just in the direction we required. We speculated where the track led to the south, heading back into the desert. Our goal was Taylor Lookout, at the southern end of Old Ballara Road. The track, which improved in quality the more north we travelled, eventually swung around to the east. Soon Taylor Lookout was only a couple of kilometres to the north. There was a fence and a gridline nearby so we drove north along the fenceline and shortly arrived at the lookout about half an hour before sunset.

We camped adjacent to a sandy creek just south of the lookout, which in reality was a small hill, sitting guardian at where the desert meets the McClintock Range and the subsequent rugged country of the southern Kimberley.
My camera had now started to work again after drying out for three days following its accident at Shiddi Pool. We decamped and drove around to the northern side of Taylor Lookout. Some of us had expressed interest in climbing it, including me and the dog – so we started the long walk to the summit. The lookout was named after Ben Taylor, who ran Lamboo Station in years past.
The view as expected was quite spectacular, with the desert to the south and the hills and peaks of the McClintock Range, including Mount Dockrell, to the north. We hoped that the Old Ballara Road was in good condition, as it appeared very difficult if we had to travel cross country. We found the road only after a few minutes of travelling north of the lookout. It was a rough track yet our only option. We travelled down through a gully of the McClintock Range and followed the track to the north.

Photo: Phil B.
Carnegie arrived and camped at Fish Pool after he had left the junction of Christmas Creek and followed the creek systems northwards. He found an inscription of prospector Billy Janet on a tree near the pool and named the creek upon which it was found Janet Creek in consequence. Now Fish Pool was our feature target for the day.

There were a few minor creek crossings on the way, none of which contained water.Mount Dockrell was on our left for a while before we found a side track off the road, so decided to take it, as we hoped it would intersect with (New) Ballara Road. This it did only a few kilometres later and we followed Ballara Road until another side track which turned to the west, and hopefully all the way to the pool. From here the track deteriorated, with overgrown trees hanging over it, yet it did not really hinder us too much.
The entire journey today from the lookout was amongst red rocky hills and beautiful views. A large creek was crossed, Willy Willy Creek, which was mainly dry however did contain a few patches of water here and there. Now our target of the pool was only ten kilometres away and we reached the area above the creek just after 3:00pm. We selected a good place to camp and the clambered down a nearby gully to have a look for the pool.
Carnegie had described the pool as a deep pool below a bar of rock which crosses the creek and enclosed between two sheer faces of rock. There were a couple of pools we found first however they were small and didn’t fit Carnegie’s description. There was no mistake though, when in a short while just downstream about 100 metres, there was the bar crossing the creek with a large pool adjacent.

We admired the pool for a short while only, before going back to camp, and settling down for the night. In the morning we gave the pool a more thorough inspection. We found no trace of Billy Janet’s tree. There were some petroglyphs on one of the faces of the rock with modern inscriptions from the 1980’s carved on top of them.
Although this was a pretty spot, we were on the tail end now of our short trip, so we departed the pool and started back on the track. Government Geologist E.T. Hardman had camped nearby at a location with many boulders in 1884. Our track in had passed this camp to the south. There was another track on the map which went around the northern side, so we located and took this track.
We stopped to admired all the boulders from an elevated position nearby and had morning tea. Now we were almost done here, so took the Old Ballara Road past Old Lamboo Station and across the Mary River, which luckily only had a small amount of water flowing down it. We came to the Great Northern Highway and stopped to reflect on not only what a great time we had had in this short time, but how hard it was for Carnegie and those other early explorers in these parts. Our journey was now at an end, and we dawdled back into Halls Creek and civilisation.
Alan McCall

Looking for adventure.
In whatever comes our way.

<<- CSR

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